Some Approaches to Lesbian Historical Fiction

Lauren Naturale

Looking about the shelves for books that are not there, you suggest a supplement to history. History’s queer enough already, isn’t it? Unreal. Lop-sided. You speculate, provide an example, and discover you’re spinning a romance. Speculation must always be romance, it is the space between facts, people who can’t afford to play cards for money play quiet games for love, you’ve simply got to gamble.

I’m writing a history which is also a fiction, and it goes like this:

You write your history and you fall in love a little, though most of the time you are only stealing from other books. Graduate students send you letters; they are excited to catch certain references. People who haven’t read many Victorian novels say that your book is like a Victorian novel, but with lesbians. Your friends congratulate you on your success and wonder if you’ve ever considered writing a real book.

You go to a bookshop where the twenty-three-year-old sales clerk, who has been getting alternative lifestyle haircuts since she was an age at which you weren’t sure alternative lifestyles were possible, complains that she doesn’t understand women who read crap like your book just to see themselves in a story.

“If I want to read something historical, I’ll read Dickens,” she tells her coworker. He’s the kind of rich boy who works in bookshops after college; he’s trying to quit smoking. Working in bookshops is a romantic hobby for people with family money, like this sales clerk with the $200 haircut who drifts behind the counter, snacking lazily on pomegranate seeds. She has never known hunger. They sell the seeds at the grocery on the corner, you can buy them in plastic tubs, but this woman brought a whole pomegranate from home, just for the satisfaction of slicing it open with a real knife. The keys of the cash register look blood-spattered.

It’s too easy for literature academics to make pomegranate jokes, so you don’t. “Dickens was practically a lesbian anyway,” she tells the bookshop boy. “I think of him as a lesbian,” and oh, of course they’re sleeping together.

That’s a bad habit that’ll come around again every six months, you think, because allusions are your own bad habit, you’re not that disciplined, and a pomegranate is never just a pomegranate when you live in books. Stories are their own facts, even stories about love.

Then the sales clerk catches you watching her and you have to feign a sudden interest in the shelf in front of you. You stare at the shelf for a long time, looking at books which aren’t there.

You’re not one of those creeps who stares at women in bookshops, and now you’ve bought this book to prove it. It’s not bad; there’s a priestess who wants to practice a forbidden religion, a slave couple who’d rather attempt suicide than allow their master to separate them, a girl who disguises herself as a boy. The Poseidonians, were they real people? When history goes back far enough, it feels like fantasy. Ancient Greece is a futuristic dystopia. Anyway, society is against everyone. They all run off to sea together. The author said she’d always wanted to be a cabin boy.

Everyone says your new book is “Dickens, but with lesbians,” though it’s actually a Dickens novel and a Wilkie Collins novel mashed together. What do they teach them at these schools?

“Does it bother you that you’re getting credit for ripping off someone else’s plot twist?” a friend asks, and you say the plot isn’t the point, you don’t care about plot, you’ve rewritten the book to feature women as characters, rather than plot devices, and that’s what’s interesting.

“What’s new about that?” asks your cab driver. “The Woman in White is an entire book about swapping new characters in for old ones. Laura and Anne are supposed to be interchangeable blank slates. All you’ve done is replace them with women who have personalities.”

“I’m glad you think it’s so easy.”

Your friend says that maybe what’s important is that we’re used to thinking of queer historical fiction as a historical project, a correction to the historical canon, whereas your book addresses the literary canon. “She’s not trying to make up for the gaps in history. She’s rewriting the books she loves to feature the sort of characters she’d rather read about.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid,” says the cab driver. “I have a Ph.D. in Victorian studies. I just don’t understand why you’d make a romance novel out of The Woman in White and Oliver Twist. These are not love stories. They’re about inheritance. Lost innocents are restored to the social order. The social order is forged anew. It’s not sexy.”

“It is when I do it.”

A friend who’s working on a historical murder mystery asked me why so many queer women write stories about men who love men, and I wasn’t sure what to tell him. Because serious books are supposed to be about men? Because it’s easier to write a book about a gay man than it is to write a book about an androgynous woman? Because second-class citizens aren’t as much fun to write about? Because, if one’s going to opt out of compulsory heterosexuality, it seems like the more glamorous option?

Instead of explaining patriarchy I said, why do straight dudes watch lesbian porn? which made him drop the subject and email me later to apologize for raising the question in the first place.

It’s total bullshit as an answer, but if you’re trying to change the subject, I’d recommend this technique to anyone.

“When I think about it logically, I see it would be unjust to be shocked at what my mother did, only because she’s a woman, when my father has killed men by thousands. You and I have killed men who never injured us except for the chance of war. Women can’t issue challenges to their enemies, as we can; they can only be avenged like women. Rather than blame them, we ought to be thankful to the gods for making us men. […] I’ll never love anyone I’m ashamed of, that I know.” He pointed to the clear brown water. “Look at all those fish.” They leaned together over the wooden rail, their heads touching; the shoal shot like a flight of arrows into the shadow of the bank. Presently straightening up, Alexander said, “Kyros the Great was never enslaved by women.”

“No,” said Hephaistion. “Not by the most beautiful woman of mortal birth in Asia. It’s in the book.”

A few other techniques: the long novel, rich with historical detail, in which the characters doggedly repress their feelings until the penultimate chapter of the book. The long novel, rich in historical detail, which was supposed to be the author’s heterosexual cross-over book club novel but which is entirely driven by passionate heavy breathing between the protagonist and her best friend, in lieu of a(nother) compelling love story. The long novel, rich in historical detail, which features a cross-dressing historical personage whom we are sternly instructed to remember is not trans, and was not trans in real life, do not get confused by the whole living-as-a-man-shtick; she’s not trans; she’s not.

Can you fault a writer for trying to sell a book about the relationships between women as a straight historical romance? No one else is likely to focus on them. You can read S____ with the assumption that the heroine is queer with no significant change to the story, except that certain parts make a bit more sense. Characters do what they want. It’s a terrible thing, to have an unmarketable subconscious. Across the country, suburban matrons in book clubs pressed S____ on each other, and perhaps it was the unusual attention to female characters which made it so popular, and perhaps it’s unfair to claim it when queers aren’t the only people starved for representation. No one has ever accused you of being fair.

People ask you when you’re going to write a real book, and your ambition also thinks this mightn’t be a bad idea. It wakes you up in the morning, walks right over your head with its furry paws, and then you have to feed it, because ambition has claws. You want to write something original, but other books keep creeping in. You don’t want to write another lesbian romance novel, but what is the acceptable level of lesbians and romance one can include in a book before it becomes a lesbian romance novel? One character? Two? Can there be love? Male characters get to fall in love all the time without their books getting labeled Romance Novels, though respectable male characters are less soppy in general. Perhaps women write stories about gay men because they’re desperately trying to make male characters seem interesting. You decide that kissing is all right. Maybe strip poker. Quiet games for love. Wait, what are they doing? You didn’t say they could do that.

In your dreams, the shades of other stories cluster around you, mewling, until you wake up and realize it’s just your ambition, sitting on your chest. You shouldn’t have read all those books. You shouldn’t have eaten that pomegranate. Where’s the well from which you can drink and do the forgetting necessary to write something original, and why are you the only one who’s expected to drink from it?

In a faraway city, you step into a cab, take the bridge over a river as black as ink, wait for the chill to ease out of your bones. What did Pixérécourt say? I’m writing for those who can’t read? Maybe you can adapt that somehow: I’m writing breathlessly for those who can’t breathe. It needs work. “I liked your last book,” says the cab driver. “It was juicy. The Great Gatsby, right? But with lesbians.”

Lauren Naturale‘s writing has appeared in The Toast, Cicada, Bitch, Phantasm Japan, and elsewhere. She likes literary fantasy, the gothic, historical fiction, and sensational things to read on trains; she would like to talk to you about Wilkie Collins. She taught English at UC Berkeley for several years, but she’s in Brooklyn now and is not going back. @lnaturale on twitter, compulsively.